Everyone experiences fear. It is a normal part of life. The world is an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous place. Fear serves a vital function, and at times listening to fear and acting accordingly can save our lives. When an animal experiences fear, in most instances it is some sort of physical danger. The fear triggers chemical reactions in the animal’s body that enable it to run, hide, or fight to protect itself. Once the danger passes, the chemicals ebb, and the creature returns to its normal state of relaxed vigilance.
While sometimes humans experience fear in response to life-threatening situations, most of the fear we feel is self-created by our own minds, not as a result of actual present danger. This type of fear is the result of insecurities, conditioning, and uncertainty about the future. It has no source in reality, so we cannot actually do anything with the stress hormones released by fear. The hormones just circulate around the body, damaging our cells and interfering with the systems that govern our long-term health. Fear created by the mind can be more crippling than fear that is a response to an immediate danger. When we are in danger and experience a fear reaction, it an help us think and act quickly to get out of the situation. But illusory fear can keep us from thinking clearly, interfere with our ability to follow our dreams, and contribute to physical and mental illness.
We cannot let fear run the show. If we let our fears take over and dictate our actions, we risk missing out on the beauty of life. But we cannot ignore fear, either. We cannot push it down and pretend it does not exist, or it will emerge in destructive ways such as addictive behaviors and compulsive self-sabotage. Healing and coming into wholeness require that we engage with our fears, that we learn from them and eventually transform them. That we discover how to smash our fears before they smash us.
Alchemy is the process of transforming one material into another. The alchemists of old were said to transform lead into gold. This process was understood as a metaphor for taking something relatively valueless, and potentially harmful, and through the application of time and intention transforming it into something immensely valuable and pure. The idea of alchemical transformation can be applied to many areas of life, from cooking to yoga practice to relationship. It is most apt in our exploration of the nature of fear.
In the process of alchemy there is always a prima materia, a base material that is intended to be transformed into the desired treasure. Instead of looking at your fears as either your boss or your enemy, explore the possibility that they might be your prima materia.
Explore each fear as though it were a treasure map. It is not the treasure itself, but it can point the way to your greatness.
The first step is to get very clear about what you fear. Fear is a tricky teacher. It can appear to be one thing on the surface, but actually stem from something completely different. A worry that you will be late for a work deadline could actually be caused by the fear that you are a fraud or doing work that is not aligned with your purpose. Being nervous that your partner is unfaithful might stem from the fear that you are unworthy of love.
To receive the wisdom fear would offer you, and keep it from smashing you, you must be willing to dig deep. What is the source of each fear you experience? What is underneath your current thoughts and feelings?
Examine your assumptions and beliefs, about yourself and the world. So many of our fears come from what we believe to be true, not what is actually true. Fear can be handed down through genetics or environment. If your parents feared something when you were a child, they probably taught you to fear it. If you experienced a trauma in your childhood that was not immediately addressed and healed, it might have solidified into an irrational but very powerful fear.
Transforming and freeing ourselves from fear requires that we question everything we think we know about reality. This is especially true of the things that we take for granted and get defensive about. If you believe something to be true without really knowing why it is true or where that assertion began, it might be based on a false belief or programmed fear.
When a sculptor begins a new large work of art in marble, there is a period of brute force in the creative process. Sledgehammers and other large heavy tools are used to break off large chunks of the rock, allowing the art piece to begin to emerge. The process is rarely comfortable, but always rewarding – even if the final piece does not appear as was originally hoped or intended.
Transforming fear often has a period of brute force involved. You must be vigilant with your mind, or it will just fall back into the old patterns and continue to let fear run the show. You must release any idea that you are a victim of life, that bad things happen to you. Instead begin to understand that you are a co-creator of life, and both pleasurable and challenging things happen for you, for your growth.
Commitment to Transformation
Like any major internal shift, transforming fear requires perseverance. Old habits are hard to break, especially well-worn mental patterns. It might be uncomfortable to look at why you behave the way you do, why you think in certain ways, why you are afraid of situations or people that are not actually posing a threat to you. Do it anyway. Transforming fear is an action, not just a theory. You must get down into the underbelly of your fear. Along the way you might encounter jealousy, rage, betrayal, hatred, loneliness, grief, sadness, or desperation. In many instances fear is an attempt to protect from the possibility of more pain. Transforming it sometimes requires that we experience the pain we have been suppressing, to let it go. To set ourselves free.
There are many tools available for actually working with fear when it arises. Tonglen and other Buddhist meditation practices employ breath and visualization to transform challenging emotions like fear. Counseling and therapy, especially somatic therapies that engage the body in the mental processes, can be very helpful in recognizing and illuminating fear.
Transforming Fear from the Inside
But even working on your own you can alchemize fear into its golden aspects. It begins with awareness. When you start to feel agitated, nervous, short of breath, or illogically cold; when thinking about your future, especially a need or dream, makes you worried or uncomfortable; or when you feel stuck and unable to move forward in your life, pay attention. These are all signs that you might be in the grip of fear.
Once you recognize the presence of fear, bring awareness to your body. Observe your breath, heartbeat, and the tactile sensations of your skin. Keep returning your attention to the present moment. Focus on the fact that you are feeling fear – not what you are afraid of, but the sensation of fear itself in this moment. Locate the sensation in your body, while continuing to breathe deeply. Relax your body as much as you can, as you continue to explore the sensation of fear.
Ask yourself what you actually fear. Why is this fear arising? What is causing it? Name your fear, and be present with it. Mindfulness is the key to understanding. So often fear takes over because we ignore it, or because it is some vague general fear of an idea or possibility. Call your fear what it is. Be specific and direct. Explore the root of it as deeply as you can, all the way to your childhood if possible. Let fear show you your deepest wounds and unmet needs.
Understanding the Lessons of Fear for Self-Mastery
Go into your fear. It is a guidepost to your self-mastery. If you fear something (that is not life-threatening), chances are that fear is showing you the way to an incredible opportunity for transformation and empowerment. If you can explore and examine the root causes of each fear, you may find within it the key to understanding yourself, and others. Fear can teach us compassion, courage, and forgiveness. It can give us great strength. If we examine, chose to transform, and learn from a fear, it can become one of our greatest allies.
Ultimately, all fear hides love. We are afraid because we do not feel the love that is the fabric of the universe. If we did not feel loved for our uniqueness as children, we may be afraid to shine as individuals now because we may not be accepted and appreciated for being ourselves. If we tried to share our love in the past and were rejected, we may do anything to keep from feeling that pain again – including being afraid to fall in love. So we let fear show us where we are cutting off the life force, where we are saying “no” to love, and then we choose to say “yes” instead – at the deepest level possible. That “yes” is what will see us through to our own empowerment.
We need to look at our fears as the base material of the masterpiece of our lives. Rather than trying to ignore, repress, or hide from them, or let them run the show, we are best served by engaging our fears. Looking them in the face and seeing what they have to teach us. Our fears are clay from which we can sculpt our future, the dark caves that hold the treasure of our creativity and unique gifts. Do not let fear smash you, instead smash it like a sculptor with clay, and let it show you who you are capable of becoming.